Header Image

Damascus Room

The Damascus Room is a highlight of the Islamic art collection assembled by Doris Duke (1912–93) and is one of two Syrian interiors preserved at Shangri La.

Syrian Room

The Syrian Room is one of Shangri La’s most cohesive spaces: a period room created for posterity, echoing those found in a number of other museums.

Damascus Room

The Damascus Room is a highlight of the Islamic art collection assembled by Doris Duke (1912–93) and is one of two Syrian interiors preserved at Shangri La.

Entry Courtyard

Visitors to Shangri La descend a long driveway shielded by dense foliage and first encounter the main house from within an open-air space known variously as the entry or banyan courtyard.

Foyer

The foyer is the first room that visitors enter in the main house, and it provides an introduction to Doris Duke (1912–93) as a collector and patron, to the visual language of Islamic art, and to the experience of Islamic art that Shangri La offers.

Central Courtyard

The main house at Shangri La revolves around a central courtyard, an architectural feature central to a number of buildings in the Islamic world.

Living Room

The living room preserves a number of important works of art from North Africa and Spain.

Mihrab Room

The Mihrab Room preserves a number of masterpieces in the DDFIA collection, particularly architectural tilework produced during the Ilkhanid period (1226–1353).

Dining Room

The dining room is Doris Duke’s (1912–93) interpretation of an Islamic-style tent.

Playhouse

Located on the west end of the property and adjacent to the ocean, the Playhouse at Shangri La is a poolside pavilion inspired by the Chehel Sutun (c. 1647–50) palace in Isfahan, the capital of Iran from 1598 to 1722. 

Mughal Garden

The Mughal Garden is Shangri La’s microcosm of the royal gardens found throughout the Indian subcontinent. 

Private Hall

The private hall is located off the central courtyard and terminates in the Mughal Suite.

Mughal Suite

The Mughal Suite is located at the end of a private hall extending from the central courtyard.

Image 2 of 8

The Damascus Room looking southwest. © 2014, Linny Morris, courtesy of the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art.

East wall of the Damascus Room. On display in the historic wall vitrine are examples of Syrian, European, Iranian and Turkish works of art from the DDFIA collection. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. (Photo: David Franzen, 2012.)

General view of the ceiling. The four hanging lamps were purchased with the room from Asfar & Sarkis. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. (Photo: David Franzen, 2012.)

Detail of the Damascus Room's 'ajami surfaces. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. (Photo: Philipp Scholz Rittermann, 2005.)

Detail of the Damascus Room's 'ajami surfaces. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. (Photo: Philipp Scholz Rittermann, 2005.)

Detail of the Damascus Room's ceiling. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. (Photo: Philipp Scholz Rittermann, 2005.)

Detail of the Damascus Room's ceiling. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. (Photo: Philipp Scholz Rittermann, 2005.)

Detail of the Damascus Room's 'ajami surfaces. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. (Photo: Philipp Scholz Rittermann, 2005.)

Detail of the Damascus Room's 'ajami surfaces. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. (Photo: Philipp Scholz Rittermann, 2005.)

Detail of the Damascus Room's 'ajami surfaces. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. (Photo: Philipp Scholz Rittermann, 2005.)

The Damascus Room is a highlight of the Islamic art collection assembled by Doris Duke (1912–93) and is one of two Syrian interiors preserved at Shangri La. Its acquisition dates to 1952, when Duke placed an order for “1 Old Damascus Room made of old painted panels of wood” with Asfar & Sarkis, an antiquities firm based in both Damascus and Beirut, which she had worked with since the late 1930s. The purchased “Old Damascus Room” consisted of eighteenth-century wood paneling (four walls and a ceiling), which would have originally decorated a reception room (typically known as a qa‘a) of an affluent courtyard home in Syria. At the time, Syria was ruled by the Ottoman Turkish empire (in Syria: 1516–1918). Such rooms are therefore commonly described as late Ottoman–period Syrian interiors.  

The wood paneling of the Damascus Room consists of both flat and raised painted surfaces. The latter are achieved through the ‘ajami technique, in which a paste-like mixture of animal glue and gypsum powder is applied to the wood substrate to create relief. In the Damascus Room, the raised ‘ajami surfaces, as well as the surrounding flat ones, are further embellished with metal leaf (gold, copper, tin) covered in multicolored translucent glazes (red, green, yellow, orange). These surfaces are shiny and stand in contrast to duller ones painted with pigments like smalt (blue), white lead and cochineal (pink). Gold leaf is also found on the most important surfaces, including the cartouches with beautiful calligraphy praising the Prophet Muhammad’s companions, which are located on the upper walls. The final effect is a visual play between flat and raised surfaces, and matte and glossy ones. Today, this effect is somewhat muted as much of the wood paneling has darkened due to corrosion of the metal leaf and multiple layers of varnish. Most late-Ottoman Syrian interiors, both in situ and abroad, have suffered a similar fate. It is in fact quite rare to encounter ‘ajami paneling that remains bright and colorful as originally intended.

The ‘ajami paneling purchased from Asfar & Sarkis in 1952 required considerable retrofitting to meet the dimensions of the preexisting guestroom located off Shangri La’s foyer. This retrofitting, which entailed the restoration of old panels and the creation of new ones, was done by the al-Khayyat workshop of Damascus. This workshop specialized in the creation and restoration of ‘ajami interiors and was led by the master artist Muhammad ‘Ali al-Khayyat (better known as Abu Suleyman). From the 1930s until his death in 1960, Abu Suleyman participated in the restoration and retrofitting of a number of ‘ajami interiors, including those preserved in the Robert Mouawad Private Museum in Beirut and the National Museum of Damascus. The Damascus Room at Shangri La therefore speaks to broader global trends in the preservation and appreciation of late-Ottoman Syrian interiors during the twentieth century. In this space, visitors can view exceptional eighteenth-century ‘ajami, as well as mid-twentieth-century workmanship by master Damascene artisans.

The Damascus Room opened to public tours for the first time in July, 2012. The room as it appears today is a new installation—one that enables visitors to enter the space, sit and enjoy the ‘ajami paneling, and peruse objects and textiles from the DDFIA collection.

Historical Images

The Damascus Room was originally built as a guest room, July 31, 1937. Shangri La Historical Archives, Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. Because of its Moorish-European—especially Spanish—furnishings, the guest room was sometimes referred to as the Spanish Room. July – August 1946. Doris Duke Photograph Collection, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation Historical Archives, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University. Photograph taken in Damascus in c. August 1954 of Georges Asfar seated in the retrofitted interior purchased by Doris Duke in 1952-53. Shangri La Historical Archives, Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. Photograph taken in Damascus in c. August 1954 of the retrofitted interior. Shangri La Historical Archives, Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. The east (Koko Head) wall of the Damascus Room during Duke’s lifetime, no earlier than 1962. Shangri La Historical Archives, Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. Damascus Room, 1999. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. (Photo: David Franzen, 1999.)
Learn MoreClick to Expand

Available on this website:

Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, “Late-Ottoman Syrian Interiors and Furnishings,” Collection Highlights, Shangri La: A Center for Islamic Arts and Cultures, November 2012.

Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, "Syrian Room," Virtual Tour, Shangri La: A Center for Islamic Arts and Cultures, November 2012.  

Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, "Conservation of the Collection," Stewardship, Shangri La: A Center for Islamic Arts and Cultures, November 2012.

The Damascus Room in Context: Acquisition, Furnishings and Conservation, Colloquium, Shangri La: A Center for Islamic Arts and Cultures, June 27–28, 2012.

Anke Scharrahs, “DDFIA 64.23.4 (‘Ajami wood paneling in the Damascus Room),” Scholar Favorites, Shangri La: A Center for Islamic Arts and Cultures, July 2012.

Dawn Sueoka, “Installing the Damascus Room,” The Door to Shangri La, July 18, 2012.

Other resources:

Discoveries: New Research on the Collections of the Department of Islamic Art at the Metropolitan Museum, Part IV: The Damascus Room (symposium, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, April 12, 2012).

Ellen Kenney, “The Damascus Room,” in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–), October 2011.

Conservation of a Syrian Interior, Dresden, Germany.

Robert Mouawad Private Museum, Beirut, Lebanon.

Damascus Room
Private Hall
About Shangri La Visit Islamic Art Collection Programs Residencies Internship Opportunities Stewardship Research Blog Contact Us